Brain fog is a funny little name for a problem that can be debilitating. When you can’t think clearly, make smart decisions, or remember important details, it can feel like your whole life is falling apart.
My experience of brain fog is that it’s like having a weighted blanket on my mind. Everything feels heavy and dull, and it’s so much easier just to close my eyes and sleep. Even basic tasks feel insurmountable—and forget about remembering to return a phone call or find my keys.
Knowing that my mind is operating at less than 100% can make a dent in my self-esteem, too. As someone who writes for a living, it’s incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to struggle with basic cognition. Thankfully, there are steps you can take right now to clear away the mental cobwebs.
I am not a doctor, and this article is not intended to diagnose a disease or prescribe a course of treatment. Please consult your primary care doctor before embarking on any major lifestyle changes.
What Is Brain Fog?
Dr. Ada Stewart told Fortune that brain fog can mean anything from “periodic memory lapses, absentmindedness, mental sluggishness, attention problems, loss of focus, or a number of other undesirable changes in thinking skills.”
Because it’s not an official medical diagnosis and can be caused by a wide range of triggers, it’s not easy to figure out what’s happening. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above. “Don’t just accept brain fog,” Stewart says. “See your primary doctor, the doctor who knows you best, to rule out anything serious.”
If you find that you’re having trouble concentrating, being more forgetful than usual, or can’t focus on tasks—even ones that usually interest you—then it’s worth making an appointment. Brain fog can negatively impact your work and school, as well as your relationships and self-esteem.
In addition to the cognitive symptoms, brain fog can be accompanied by headaches, low energy, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and a feeling of detachment from the world. These physical and mental challenges make life so much harder than it needs to be, as though someone has raised the difficulty setting on a video game without telling you.
What Causes Brain Fog?
When you meet with your doctor, you may need to undergo a series of tests to figure out the source of your cognitive struggles. That’s because so many things can cause your brain to feel fuzzy and sluggish. Sudden onset of symptoms could indicate an emergency, so don’t wait to call an ambulance. However, most people who complain of brain fog experience chronic symptoms.
Brain fog isn’t exclusively a problem for aging folks. While there are medical conditions that can cause cognitive problems as you grow older—and it’s worth being screened if you have a family history of those conditions—brain fog can affect anyone.
In an article published in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, Karan Kverno claimed that “[c]hronic low-level inflammation is the most detrimental to the mind and body.” Conditions that cause chronic inflammation can take a toll on the brain as well as the body. Lifestyle can also trigger brain fog, which can cause you to make even more harmful choices, creating a negative feedback loop that leaves you feeling exhausted.
Lifestyle causes of brain fog include chronic stress, sleep deprivation, dehydration, a lack of exercise, and poor dietary choices. Some medications can cause brain fog as a side effect. In addition, many physical and mental health conditions count brain fog as a symptom. That list includes, but isn’t limited to, the following:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Hormonal imbalances
- Viral infections
- Vitamin deficiencies
It feels especially cruel that depression, which already saps your ability to function, also messes with your cognitive ability. If you’ve ever experienced a major depressive episode, then you’ll probably be familiar with the molasses-like quality of your thoughts and the extreme difficulty of stringing a sentence together. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, as chronic stress can cause inflammation, which triggers brain fog, and then depression flares up so you stop exercising and eating healthy, and then everything is awful and you’re not even sure which symptoms started first.
Scientists are still researching the causes of brain fog, and unfortunately, there’s no simple test or easy cure. Again, you should talk to your doctor to narrow down the possible causes. But in the meantime, you can also take steps to ensure that you are giving your brain everything it needs to thrive.
How to Fight Back Against Brain Fog
Did you know that the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was originally used to demonstrate how impossible it is to lift yourself up without help? You can’t grab the loops at the back of your boots and expect to heave your body off the ground. Eventually, the phrase came to mean the exact opposite. I mention this because if anyone tells you to just get over it, try harder, or pull yourself together, you can send them a link to the article above. It’s very hard to make any kind of positive changes on your own, especially if you’re struggling with a health condition. It’s important to reach out for support—from your loved ones, your doctor, online support groups, and so on.
If your doctor rules out a specific underlying health condition, then there are lifestyle changes you can make to help boost your cognitive abilities. Don’t try to do everything at once—remember, you can’t pull yourself off the ground through sheer willpower alone. Making small but impactful changes to your routine over time is more effective than flipping all your habits at once.
Getting Enough Sleep
Yes, yes—we all know that sleep is important. Okay, but sleep is really important. Without getting enough quality rest, you won’t be able to do anything else. Aim for a minimum of eight hours every night. If that’s a challenge, then you may need to retool some of your other habits. Making your bedroom a “screen-free” zone can help, as can changing the time of day that you eat. Creating a relaxing, peaceful environment is also helpful. Check out our guide to good sleep hygiene here!
Stress is the worst. Chronic stress doesn’t just make you feel tired and irritable. It can be harmful to pretty much every system of your body and cause serious health concerns. Managing chronic stress isn’t easy, as there’s only so much you can shove off your plate. Creating a healthy work-life balance will help, as will spending time with the people you care about. Volunteering can be really beneficial to both you and your community, too.
I know you’re probably sick of hearing people tell you to meditate, but… maybe give it a shot. Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness techniques are free and easy ways to start pushing back against chronic stress You may also find that journaling is helpful. Rather than ranting and ruminating, use your journal as a “bucket” for all the stuff that’s stressing you out. Write it all down—and then leave it safely closed between the covers of your book.
Upgrading Your Diet
If you stop to think about it, it makes a lot of sense that your stomach has a major impact on your brain. The fuel you choose to consume will either help your body run like a sports car or a beat-up clunker that hasn’t had an oil change in more than a decade and might actually have a possum living under the hood.
I know which one I’d rather be.
Eating a nutritious, balanced diet ensures that your body has all the building blocks it needs. It might surprise you to learn that caffeine is not the best thing to reach for when you’re experiencing brain fog. While you might get a brief boost of energy, it doesn’t address the root cause. According to registered dietician Liz Weinandy, eating a diet that’s rich in healthy fats is essential for brain health. Your brain is made up of about 70% fat, and it needs omega-3 fatty acids to function. You can get those from fish as well as nuts and seeds.
Make sure that you also eat enough protein to replenish your neurotransmitters, as well as a variety of fruits and vegetables to get plenty of vitamins. Whatever you do, skip highly processed foods and simple carbs.
Prioritizing Regular Exercise
When your brain is feeling foggy, the last thing you want to do is hunt for your sneakers and hit the gym. I hate to break it to you, but regular exercise is super important for physical and mental health.
The good news is that you don’t need to take up CrossFit or start training for a marathon. Just moving your body can help you snap out of the fog. Take regular breaks to stretch while you work or keep a set of hand weights at your desk for a few quick bicep curls. Do a couple of squats or pushups (wall pushups count!) while you’re waiting for your lunch to heat up. Walk while you talk on the phone.
There are so many ways to incorporate more movement into your day. Even if you start out really, really small, you’ll still be making progress. And as you start to feel better and build more energy, you’ll find that it gets easier to exercise.